Q&A: Paula Wallace on incorporating art in your home

Paula Wallace
Mar 28, 2019

Paula Wallace is the founder and president of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). Celebrating its 40th anniversary, SCAD is a private, nonprofit university that is known for its wide ranging programs that prepare students for creative careers. The campus includes the SCAD Museum of Art, a contemporary art museum that features emerging and established international artists. Paula has written a number of books including several on interior design and on the architecture of the university.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, Marie Kondo, the Property Brothers or Nate Berkus, answer your decorating, design and decluttering questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and organizing. For more than 20 years, our Thursday Q&A has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share your own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small.

It's exciting to have art expert and educator Paula Wallace, president and founder of the Savannah College of Art and Design on the chat, especially now as SCAD is celebrating its 40th anniversary and has more than 55,000 alumni. Paula is a distinguished author of a number of books; her publications include interior design and architecture books and children's books. She is the perfect person to address your questions about art in your home and how to acquire it, frame it and hang it. Let's chat.

Hello! I'm Paula Wallace — designer, writer, mother, and life-long educator. I founded SCAD in 1978 with a mission to prepare students for creative careers. SCAD has four campuses on three continents and almost 15,000 enrolled students. Throughout SCAD spaces worldwide, you'll find works of art created by students, alumni, and faculty. It's a designer's dreamland!


How do you know what frame to choose?

Sometimes, you just want the frame to recede, to disappear. It's like an accessory for your outfit — a frame often finishes the presentation of art but shouldn't overwhelm it.

When picking out pieces of art you like and enjoy, how would you advise a homeowner on making it cohesive throughout the home? Is there something a homeowner can do to make existing pieces fit together?

Even from the exterior of your home, you consider a color palette. It may be a soft mossy green, or a coral, or an aqua blue. You may not rigidly adhere to it. Some people may choose a neutral palette, dramatic black and white. They may carry that inside, too. The walls, floors, even photography in the home may work in that palette. Consider the home as a whole, interior and exterior. You might incorporate vintage finds that add a pop of color, or something humorous. Something to bring joy.

When looking at a room, almost as a blank canvas, how do you go about selecting the right artwork to highlight the perfect space?

Art is a guest everybody remembers: Think of your art like a great dinner raconteur — a conversation starter, a question asker. Contemporary art invites us to decode meaning. You want to create a dialogue between the works and other elements of the interior — tabletop, artifacts, furnishings, appointments, lighting, mementos. Your art tells a story.

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Once it's on the walls, how do you care for oils and other art that may not have protective glass or acrylic over it?

Paint is actually surprisingly resilient. To keep it clean, use a soft paintbrush. Never use a cloth to wipe the surface. No brillo, no magic eraser! Just a nice, soft paintbrush. You want paperbacking adhered to the edges on the back of the frame to prevent dust creeping in. Keep it out of direct sunlight if you can. Artificial light is preferable. If it’s an old painting, this is particularly important. Change the placement once in a while, both for your own pleasure and the good of the art. Anything on paper really should have UV acrylic over it. 

How do I start building an art collection?

Listen to your eyes. Some art, you pass by; other works arrest you midstep. Maybe it’s a favorite color or an abstract pattern that reminds you of a childhood bedspread. Maybe the work features an iconic image that connects to something deep inside you. Who are you, and how might your art reflect that? Abstract, figurative, bold, or subtle: there’s a place, a time, and a collector for everything.

Art is where you find it. Found objects can contribute to your collection. They relate to a memory of an experience, or a time in your life.

If you keep thinking about a work of art you saw after leaving the gallery, that’s a sign. As we say at SCAD Art Sales, if it wakes you up in the middle of the night, call us in the morning!

I have a lot of things to frame and not a big budget. How do you find reasonably priced framers? And is it a good idea to try and use old frames and have new mats cut so you can put different art pieces in them?

Go to a flea market, and repurpose a frame. The frame then is like a found object, connecting to an experience. 

At SCAD, we like unusual framing options like mirrored, backlit, or neon. Sometimes we like to do a mix of materials in framing that is unexpected and juxtaposes high/lowbrow looks. Color in framing can be a fun change too - for example, a contemporary illustration that looked amazing in an electric blue frame. Smaller works look best grouped on an interesting salon wall.

I have inherited my parents' art collection, which comprises a wide range of oil paintings, watercolors, prints, framed fabric, lithographs, etc. It's not a huge collection, but definitely takes up space. Currently I have things leaning against a wall in our cool-ish, non-moldy basement. We're clearing out my dad's house so will be bringing the rest of the collection home soon. What is the best way to store these pieces when they're not on display?

If you can, elevate the work on a 2 x 4 or an egg-crate pallet. It's best to keep the collection off the floor. Store them standing upright, paired back-to-back and front-to-front, interleaved with acid-free foamcore. I might drape a piece of Dartek over it to prevent dust from settling and provide a moisture barrier.

I would suggest moving it out of your basement, which can often be too wet. The attic is likely too hot. Ideally, find a little-used room for your treasures. When you can bear to part with it, gift the collection to someone who needs to start their own.

Where are some places you can shop to find unique, inexpensive art? I'm a recent college grad furnishing my first apartment. I'm looking on the internet and places like Wayfair and Ikea, but I'm only seeing the same handful of prints that other people my age have and I don't want to use my old college posters anymore.

One of the great secrets of finding affordable, high-quality contemporary art is to attend student exhibitions at local universities. At SCAD, we have Open Studio Night. The intimate atmosphere of these student shows — which often feature exuberant experimentation and diverse perspectives — also affords you time for a tête-à-tête with emerging artists, to connect with their point of view. Check university calendars for MFA thesis shows, which often occur near the end of each term.

Look for a local outdoor market. You can arrange series or multiples of any object — hats, baskets, doorknobs, jewelry, fans, even shoes. Any sort of collectible that you can buy or find, you could pull together to display to your liking. In SCAD’s preservation design building, we have collections of historic decorative building elements. If you love architecture, think of going to an architectural salvage business to pick up shelves, windows, hinges, and other architectural remnants to start your own collection. Sometimes people already have these collections in a drawer — think about relocating it.

We were excited to recently purchase a wonderful painting by a young Ethiopian immigrant here in Tel Aviv. (It features three figures in a room; the colors more or less go with my colors) I have a few nice numbered prints that I like and one original, a landscape by an Italian artist. This new piece is quite unlike anything I have. How do we incorporate new art with existing? Are there rules about what can go with what? Thanks!

No rules! New and existing art belong together. You may think about allowing each type of art to live together, room-to-room, in your home. The framing could provide a unifying factor for cohesiveness.

A trademark of SCAD spaces is the the lively combination of contemporary paintings and mixed-media works among vintage objects. There’s a mix of classical and elegant with weird and wild.

Are there certain colors to stay away from when buying art for your home?

There are no bad colors. It's a matter of what suits you, and what you respond to. If you don't respond to it, don't force a color. Some people might avoid pink, but I like painting all my ceilings a color that reminds me of this Estée Lauder blush I used to have. Reflected light is flattering. It's why people used to line their lampshades with pink silk, or use a pink bulb. It gives you a healthy, soft ambient light. Don't forget that you are a part of your interior, so you should design it to favor you.

I'm living in a very bright environment now...out west...and I have not hung anything in direct sunlight. But still I worry about damage. What rules do I need to consider?

You're smart to be concerned about light damage. It's cumulative. You can have things in a bright room for a short period of time — no longer than three months. Then you can give them a nice long rest. If you can, install a film of UV-protectant glaze over your windows. Consider placing your most delicate works in a dimmer room, and sturdier, sculptural works in rooms with more light.

When you're not in the room, try to prevent the light from entering. For a beach house, for instance, if you're away for the weekend, draw the curtains and close the blinds. Pull down a solar screen, like a mecho shade. Over time, you'll find that anything in direct sunlight fades — furniture, rugs, upholstery. When you're not in the space, try to block out light. It saves on energy costs, too! Treat your art like you treat yourself. You wear sunblock and sunglasses, so employ similar tactics to protect your art.

Do you ever switch pieces out of a collection? How do you know if it's time for a change.

If you walk right past the art and don't even notice it, you're due for a change. You want art to be present — something you would miss if it weren't there. Ideally, art in your office or your home evokes meaning. It says something about you, your personal history and your ideas. It's like a welcome friend that you are glad to see every day.

Any tips for finding unique pieces without spending a fortune?

This is an important question. You don't need to spend a fortune, but investing in work that fits your taste is key. Putting too many small objects together can cause a displeasing visual cacophony that neither you nor your guests will enjoy. I recommend finding one central work, within your budget. Go bold and big — like a large black-and-white photograph on one feature wall. It prevents the eye from darting and dashing, and leaves breathing room around the central work. When building a collection, think of the cost of art relative to the cost of furniture. Great art, like good furniture, will become part of your family history.

Many thanks, Jura! It was a delight to answer these questions. So many insightful and well-informed readers out there. Thank you all!

Paula you were so generous with your time to answer our questions today. Loved your ideas and tips. Next week join me for a chat on Spring Cleaning with Becky Rapinchuk of Clean Mama.

In This Chat
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily Twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering and organizing.

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Nicole Gibbons
Paula Wallace
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